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« This Week's Acquisitions | Main | James vs. James »

May 21, 2005


Sherman Dorn





I hate it when students claim that they need a certain grade in order to get into law school, med school, etc. "Please, Mr. X, if you don't raise this to an A, you'll be destroying my career! Surely one little comp. instructor shouldn't have that much power..."


I just have to know. Have you really had somebody threaten you with the "my mother is a lawyer" bit?


Yes, I have no empathy for the "I have to get into law school" line (although, interestingly, I've also never heard it). I have a lot more, though, for the "I have to keep a 3.0 to maintain my scholarship."

Should have worked harder then, you say? Quite possibly. And I consider myself lucky that I've only ever had a student say that to me mid-semester, in the context of "what do I need to do to get X?"

What bugs me about this system of ostensibly merit-based scholarship aid, though, is that it's entirely predicated on a certain form of merit: that which produces high grades. As Miriam points out, one can work really, really hard, and get a poor grade. So having one's ability to stay enrolled in college utterly dependent on Bs or better is like handing students an invitation that says, "Don't try anything new! Don't challenge yourself! Math is hard, right? Take the Disney pre-calc, and get out while the going's good!" Some education.

OK, so I kind of highjacked this topic. I just hate grading in so many ways: doing it, arguing about it, having it codify certain kinds of behaviors that are entirely antithetical to what I believe is important about my job. Not to mention the fact that it tends to turn students and professors into adversaries, which is a whole 'nother problem...

A. Cephalous

I'm going go out--and quite possibly hang myself from--a limb here and say that in freshman-level comp. courses, the "I worked really, really hard" excuse, when coupled with evidence like 191 drafts in which each is an substantial improvement on the last, should earn a student a higher grade...even if the finished product isn't all that polished. Blasphemy, you say? No. It's because I consider freshman comp. a sort of "university studies" class, in which the development of proper study skills--the kind that are necessary to succeed in college but weren't, for the most part, necessary for success in high school--should be rewarded. If a freshman enters college and sees that he/she will be rewarded for doing the right kind of hard work, that ethos is more likely to stick than if, say, that same freshman enters college, busts his/her ass and is rewarded, despite marked improvement in their performance, with a C or C+. If I believed freshman comp. were an actual college course, mind you, I wouldn't think this. But being that it is what it is, I'm all for rewarding the development of the study skills that will provide students what they'll need to successfully navigate the next four or five years of their lives.


I make effort and progress a large percentage of my final grade in composition classes. But often the students who argue that they worked really hard are precisely the students in whose writing I see no evidence of hard work whatsoever.

A. Cephalous


You're correct. I should've specified that I'm talking about performance over the course of a quarter and not complaints lobbied after-the-fact. Those cases are easy to spot and I can dismiss them in clear conscience: I just point them to the students whose grades were lifted by the amount of verified work they did during the quarter and tell them that, in the future, they need to come to office hours, revise drafts, and all the other means by which these other students demonstrated their work ethic over the course of the quarter. I then tell these after-the-facters that it wouldn't be fair to give them the benefit of the doubt when their classmates have gone to such lengths to earn it. And yes, before anyone asks, I've faced a number of grade challenges...and none of them have been successful. They do involve some explanation of my policy and practices, as the challengers relentlessly misrepresent my position, but everytime I show an administrator the difference between the portfolio of student whose efforts I rewarded and one whose efforts were judged solely on the basis of their performance, I'm exonerated. And it is a lot of extra work for me, but unlike many graduate students, I consider myself a teacher and even, at times, behave like one...even when it costs me a couple hours on my dissertation.

Jonathan Dresner

Good list. I might have to put a link to that on my course pages next year, under "grading policies"....


Yes, this is wonderful!!! Now, if only we could tattoo this on their eyelids.

William Wend

Great list! As a student I haven't always been the best student, but I have such a huge problem with students who beg and grade grub.


"Many of us will not discuss grades over e-mail.  Try politely requesting an appointment."

Interesting. As an adjunct, I try to confine most of my wheeling-and-dealing with students to e-mail. In case there's some sort of dispute or complaint, I want a paper trail that shows my sincere offers of assistance and the umpteen chances I gave them.


Dear Jeff, E-mailing grades is a dangerous proposition with FERPA these days; quite simply, you do not know who's on the other end. For that reason, and because of lawsuit threats, my institution strictly forbids discussing specifics of points and grades. We are limited to policies, etc. Something to think about and cover your assets, as it were.


Great list!

I'd add something to that last bit. I used to warn my students that when they gave me something to re-grade, there was as much chance that the grade might go _down_ as up, so they'd better be sure that it was as deserving as they thought.

Asking them to write a one-page essay laying out, with specific examples, why they believe their paper deserves a higher grade, also weeds out the merely whiny from the genuinely concerned.


A., I'd caution you about comparing one student to others, because it might be construed as a violation of student confidentiality.


I'm going to have to go and chat with my much more experienced colleagues about this, but my impression is that this kind of thing is much less of a problem over here in British universities. If I'm right, I'm wondering why. Because tuition fees tend to be lower and a university education is as yet less commodified? Or perhaps it's because we seem to have much more formal and impersonal (indeed, bureaucratic) procedures surrounding the submission of assessed work and the calculation of final grades, so students are more likely to accept the outcomes as authoritative and fixed? For example, we as teachers do not calculate final course grades; we simply pass on the marks (usually percentages not letter grades) for each piece of assessed work to the administration. There would, in fact, be no point in going to a teacher to try to have a course grade changed; it's not in our power to do it. (Also, in my university, it's now the case that almost all assessed work, exams and coursework, is marked anonymously. So it quite possibly wouldn't be allowed for a teacher to change a mark once they know the identity of the student who wrote the piece of work. I'm guessing it'd have to be re-marked by someone else.) All in all, getting any grade decision changed requires considerable effort on the part of the student. But I might see if I can find out how many bother to try...

Adjunct Kait

Great post! I was discussing some similar issues over on my blog yesterday:

I haven't had the "my mother is a lawyer," but I have heard a student run the "my mother thinks I should get an A" routine by a colleague of mine. In my own class, I've had the "but I've made the dean's list every semester and I don't want to mess that up now" drama. And my personal favorite: "I'm pledging and they'll kick me out of rush if I'm not doing well..." I worked really hard not to laugh when I got that one.

Adjunct Kait

Cheeky Prof

I love this post, and completely agree with every point. Much of it I have on my syllabi, along with Rana's point about the potential disadvantages of requesting a re-grade, along with the rule that requests/complaints must be put in writing.

Sometimes these rules don't matter much, unfortunately. At this very moment I'm dealing with a student who went straight to the Dean with a grading issue and now we're ending up at the Academic Grievance Board. He failed a course--badly (56% with extra-credit and a curve)--and now will not graduate. He blatantly skipped about a third of the work and told my chair he didn't understand how he was graded. Not only was this spelled out in the syllabus, but graded papers were returned to him weekly and every assignment was posted in a timely manner on Blackboard throughout the semester; how could he not know?! The best part? When he went to the dean and my chair he didn't take a single piece of paper in with him. His entire argument relies on "he worked hard and doesn't deserve the F" and the fact that he thinks I "have it in for him."


I'm now in the secondary sector after several years in the tertiary sector. I haven't had "my mother is a lawyer", but I have had a few "my Dad helped me with this, and he's a (insert specialty vaguely related to assignment here)". It's hard to resist answering "but not a good one, obviously".


If in fact students believe they deserve a better grade, that the professor was not fair and maybe graded their work based on work from other students (past or present) how or why then would you change a grade and based on what arguement if all assignments were completed and there was not a deadline, but assignments were done? what then?

David Blackburn

Hilarrious list

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